What future does Bangladesh have when it comes to its democracy?
Forbes ranked Sheikh Hasina as the 39th most powerful woman in the world. For Bangladeshis, this perhaps seems like an understatement.
Having extraordinary control over a system of governance that can best be described as top down in nature, what the prime minister says, goes -- or at least this is the perception which the Awami League has engineered for over a decade.
Therefore, when PM Hasina asked the Awami League Central Committee to prepare for the 2023 general elections in a recent meeting, mass media outlets and her political opponents started engaging in discussions regarding the nature of elections that Bangladesh is moving towards.
With political activities at a bare minimum and recent electoral exercises deemed controversial to say the very least, what future does Bangladesh have when it comes to democracy?
The practise of participation
A key component of any election is in the practise of participation in two forms -- the participation of all parties across the political spectrum and importantly, the participation of voters.
Under the current administration, both the 2014 and 2018 elections fell short of being celebrations of democracy -- in the first, the Awami League’s principal opponent refused to participate.
In the latter, PM Hasina’s foremost nemesis historically in stature and popularity, Begum Khaleda Zia, was disallowed from participating in the polls due to judicial convictions -- resulting in the BNP diminishing to an electoral debacle.
What got us here can be debated -- and the blame can be shared. Yet what is certain is this -- voters have lost interest in exercising their right to vote.
I term the voting base disengaged if not disinterested -- this is bound to happen when citizens are fed inaccurate and asymmetric information -- a classic example being the Election Commission’s assessment that the 11th parliamentary polls held in December 2018 witnessed a voting turnout of 80%.
On one end, television reporters showcased empty polling booths and citizens facing a barrage of hurdles when voting -- while on the other, voters were being fed outrageous statistics regarding turnouts.
Therefore, the participation of voters in the electoral process is deteriorating -- both tangibly when it comes to casting their votes, and symbolically, when it comes to being active participants in narrating the needs of the country.
Political experts deem these developments symptomatic of democratic backsliding -- whereas the methodical degradation of the political institutions which sustain a democracy, are resulting in de-democratization.
This brings me to my fundamental point. Re-establishing trust for both political opponents as well as voters, is key to ensuring that the Awami League stays true to its roots as an organization which is infused with the spirit of our independence struggle -- the entire narrative of development versus democracy and the very notion that achieving success in the former automatically results in a trade-off of the latter, is simply not true.
So, how does the government address this seeming lack of trust in the electoral process? Intriguingly, the answer lies in the problem -- the state needs to transition its focus towards electoral institutions, primarily towards the Election Commission and in finding a sustainable formula for an election time administration.
This requires a simultaneous policy decision by the BNP to give up its utopian dream of removing Sheikh Hasina from power through a street-based movement or its continuous demands for the reinstatement of a caretaker government, once and for all -- the caretaker government is a politically dead issue that frankly has no mileage.
Therefore, it would be more fruitful for Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and co to engage in discussions with the Awami League as to the components of how the Election Commission should be formed, what specific powers they should have, and how an acceptable election time government within the current constitutional framework, can be achieved.
An absence of direction
Five decades after independence, Bangladesh continues to have an absence of legislative directions or laws with regards to how its Election Commission should be formed.
The president, who as per the constitution is nothing more than a titular or ceremonial figurehead, is “empowered” to appoint election commissioners and the chief election commissioner by taking input from “search committees” -- there is a lack of an organic system in selecting the administrative authors of the electoral process, and the absence of this has a direct effect in making political institutions such as the Election Commission partisan and controversial.
The president acts on the advice of the prime minister -- the head of the government is head of the political executive and this in turn, amongst other constitutional arrangements such as parliament’s singular authority to impeach judges, has resulted in the very role of the prime minister of Bangladesh being deemed as one of the most powerful and unaccountable positions in the world.
In a nutshell, the appointment of the Election Commission needs to be done through a redefined transparent mechanism -- outside the purview of political considerations or the political executive. And this is what political actors, particularly the opposition, should focus on. Decentralizing power away from the Prime Minister’s Office must take centre stage.
A failure to cooperate
Then comes the components of the election time government. Should the home ministry be under the authority of the Election Commission? What functions should the prime minister play during the polls period? These are arenas to work on.
To be fair to PM Sheikh Hasina, she tried engaging in these conversations in 2014 and 2018, but failed for a myriad of reasons -- particularly due to the inability of Khaleda Zia to have political foresight, the incompetence of her trusted advisers, and a parallel environment of political harassment.
An all-party committee in consultation with local and international experts should be formed to research and provide input to the government when it comes to defining the role of a polls time administration -- this will ensure bipartisan and expert drive recommendations with regards to the appointment process for key constitutional posts.
Murmurs about political compromises regarding Khaleda Zia’s confinement situation and rumours of backroom dialogues between the BNP and the Awami League have been rampant -- contrary to what many may believe, the BNP is essential for the sustenance of the Awami League.
The party in power needs a mainstream voice on the other side of the aisle -- politically sidelining them is one thing, but decimating them to pieces creates ample room for external undemocratic forces to fill the opposing political vacuum.
For this very reason, elections -- and relatively participatory elections -- are important. Perspectives are crucial in politics as well -- and it unfortunately seems that the current regime has refrained from showing to the public, its interest to address the serious concerns that have arisen when it comes to the lack of free, fair, credible, participatory, and inclusive electoral exercises in Bangladesh in the last decade.
Not an attack nor an endorsement
This should not be taken as an attack on those who argue in favour of Bangladesh’s developmental strides since 2009 -- neither should this be taken as an endorsement of the arguments put forth by the BNP in the recent past. That is a matter for another day.
However we cannot succumb to the notion that Bangladesh will just get on with its business without addressing the severe plight it faces in enshrining democratic electoral processes.
The Awami League is fielding third tier candidates in local elections -- the entire generation of new MPs in 2014 and 2018 have been elected either unopposed or with the active support of a law enforcement system that acts as an external branch of the ruling party -- wealth, and not skill, healthy competition or public support, defines who gets to be our parliamentary policymakers.
Collectively, this is an institutional disaster -- and if we do not address this as a country, history will judge this generation of political actors as systematic disablers of what was an already fragile system.
Focus on political institutions to design a level playing field -- that should be Bangladesh’s path towards 2023.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is Toronto-based banking professional and a freelance contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]